By Jeremy Godwin.
This is Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing, by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin, that is about much more than just talk – every episode includes practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week we’re talking about the holidays – how to navigate the various challenges of the holidays (like family, stress and even grief) and what you can do to look after your mental health and wellbeing. Listen now in the Spotify player below or read the transcript below. Let’s talk!
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year… well, except for when it’s not. Many of you in North America have recently had Thanksgiving, and many of us are gearing up for Christmas as well as the New Year shortly after. With so much going on, it can be overwhelming – regardless of whether or not you actually celebrate Christmas, it’s impossible to avoid it… you only have to duck to the supermarket to pick up your groceries and you’ll be bombarded with Christmas carols and decorations, along with more Christmas-related merchandise than you can shake a candy-cane at (actually most of that stuff has been out since at least August, so…)
Why the holidays can be challenging
The holiday season can be joyful or it can be stressful, and all-too-often it can be a combination of both. We tend to refer to this time of year as “the holidays” because not only does it capture the big events like Christmas, but it also reflects the fact that many people also take time off over this time of year; the thing is though that not everyone gets time off over the holidays – people still have to work to keep all those shops and services going that we’ve come to rely on so much. And then, on top of that, regardless of whether or not you have time off, it’s a difficult time for many people for a variety of reasons, for example: Difficult family relationships; the loss of a loved one; being disconnected from family or friends or not being able to spend time with loved ones; relationship issues like separation or divorce; single parents winning or losing the lottery on who gets the kids (or one parent not showing up for Christmas and causing a child hurt and anger); not having the money to do the things you want… there are so many different hurdles at this time of year that it can be overwhelming and exhausting for many of us.
If you’re not having a great time at this supposedly-joyful time of year, you’re not alone. But getting through the holidays doesn’t mean that you need to limp your way to the finish line on New Year’s Eve. It is entirely possible to get through the next couple of weeks in one piece with your mental health and wellbeing firmly intact; it takes a little bit of work and effort, and that’s what we’re talking about today.
Why do some of us struggle at this time of year? Well, there are various reasons like I said before, but one of the main things that all of those examples have in common is that they’re all closely linked to the weight of expectation that seems to go hand-in-hand with the holidays. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it is impossible to avoid it unless you go and live in a cave for a month or two (and even then I swear you’ll be able to hear Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ somewhere in the distance). There is a joy to the idea of Christmas, but the reality often leaves a lot to be desired.
I struggle at this time of year, just as I do around specific anniversaries and my birthday. We have a small Christmas Day, mainly because most of our family lives too far away and also because I have a not-great relationship with my mother. The holidays are triggering for me, and frankly now that I’m a bit older I just prefer to just have a low-key day – and do you know what? That’s okay. Because we each have the right to make the choices that are right for us. I didn’t get through years and years of severe anxiety and depression by not learning a thing or two about setting boundaries that are in my best interests, and I know that if I push myself too hard at this time of year I get overly emotional, which can lead me into a downward spiral of feeling a bit depressed for a few weeks.
So, in today’s episode I’m going to go through some practical advice for how to work through different challenges you might be grappling with over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to give some general advice for you to think about different ways of approaching the holidays, then I’ll talk about a few specific things, namely: dealing with your stress levels; what to do if you’re entertaining to maintain your mental health and wellbeing; dealing with family challenges; and what to do if you or someone you know is dealing with grief at this time of year.
General advice for getting through the holidays
First – set realistic expectations. Perfection isn’t realistic, and you don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Nigella. I used to stress myself out over how perfect I wanted my Christmas wrapping to be every year, until finally I realised enough was enough – now, it’s gift bags all the way. Guess what? Nobody cared. It’s okay to just be okay with things like gifts, instead of perfect.
Speaking of gifts… do you really need to buy gifts for everyone? When I went through the beginning of my health issues back in 2011 and 2012, it got to a point where I was in such a terrible financial position that I could barely pay my bills, let alone pay for Christmas presents, so I had honest conversations with people about why I wouldn’t be doing presents that year. And do you know what? Nearly every single one of them was relieved. Buying presents for people creates pressure, it takes time and it all adds up, so consider reducing your circle of gift-giving as much as possible. My partner and I don’t buy one another gifts – we usually just end up buying something for the house that we both want, or we buy a series on Apple TV to watch.
Speaking of purchases… I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Christmas doesn’t have to be just about the commercial side of things if you don’t want it to be; you have a choice, and it’s up to you whether or not to engage. You can achieve the gift of giving with something simple or if you’re feeling really artsy then you can make something… either way, it’s the thought that counts. At the very least, you can always limit the number of gifts to one per person.
Because the unfortunate thing about Christmas is that it often goes hand-in-hand with debt – here in Australia, there was a recent study released that identified our country as having the second highest level of household debt in the world, after Switzerland (1 – see list at end of article for reference links), and that the average household debt is close to 200% of income (2). Now, a lot of that is because housing prices here have gone insane over the past 20 years, but we have a real issue with credit cards as well with over $45 billion in debt (3), which is massive for a country of just under 25 million people. Getting yourself into debt for Christmas is insanity, and will cause way more stress later. It might sound simplistic but the cold-hard fact is that if you want to protect your mental health and wellbeing then it’s important not to put yourself in a position where you’re going to struggle later because of one day of the year.
Make smart choices. If you can’t afford Gucci loafers for everyone you love, then don’t buy Gucci loafers for everyone you love. Now, if you can afford them, then that’s your choice… but take a moment to think seriously about why overpriced footwear is even necessary and what it says about our culture – I don’t want to lecture you or anything, but that money could be better served doing something kind for your community. Don’t buy stuff just for the sake of stuff or because it’s got a fancy logo on it. I used to spend so much money on clothing and sunglasses and everything, and I wouldn’t wear prescription glasses unless they were Prada or another big label. Then when I went through financial problems I discovered that it really made no difference whether or not I purchased generic or label – the world didn’t stop turning, and nobody cared. Prioritise your wellbeing over all other factors.
With that in mind: if you don’t want to decorate, don’t. The world could do with less stuff being purchased just to decorate our homes for a few weeks then either put away for the rest of the year or just thrown out. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of rubbish we throw away every year is a good thing – the resources on this planet are finite and we can’t just keep on consuming. Don’t let Christmas be an excuse for waste.
A few more general tips:
- Stick to your regular routine as much as possible… I’ve said it before, having a set bedtime and a set time to get up creates good mental health, because it serves to stabilise your mind and body
- Get plenty of rest – I know there’s a lot going on, but rest is vital
- Try not to overindulge – you don’t need to deny yourself, but all things in moderation
- If you do overindulge, forgive yourself and get back on track as quickly as possible to avoid it spiralling
- Remember that it’s ok to say no to things – you have the choice to do as much or as little as you would like
- Be alone if you want to be, don’t be alone if you don’t want to be… again, it’s your choice
- If you don’t have anyone to spend Christmas Day with and you don’t want to be alone, go and help out a charity – I know that’s advice that comes up a lot, but with good reason, because there are always people who have it worse than you and you can make a positive difference with the gift of your time
- Do what makes you happy – as I always say, if it doesn’t harm anyone then go for it
- Be in the present
- Take time for yourself and practice self-care, and take a break if you need it
- Practice gratitude – there is a lot to be grateful for, so focus on the positive
- Remember that it’s ok to ask for help
- And finally: be considerate – not everyone celebrates Christmas, and that’s okay; other people’s choices are their choices, and if it’s not harming anyone then good luck to them
Stress and the holidays
Let’s talk about stress for a moment. Monitor your stress levels carefully, especially if you’re prone to anxiety or other conditions, and if you need to take a break then take a break. Acknowledge and accept your emotions – it’s okay to feel the way you feel, and remember that emotions are manifestations of needs that are either met or unmet, so if you’re struggling then take some time to think through what’s going on underneath the surface and consider what is within your control to change… and take plenty of time out for self-care. If that means you need to go soak in a bubble bath for an hour or close your eyes and meditate, then you do you. You’re no good to anybody if you’re running on empty.
Entertaining and the holidays
If you’re entertaining: make it easy on yourself. I used to do an elaborate menu that would stress me out all day and would inevitably result in days and days of leftovers because I over-catered. Now I do a boneless turkey breast thing that just goes in the oven and I serve it up with a couple of salads (I’m fortunate that being in Australia means lighter foods are better this time of year anyway because it’s usually hotter than the seventh layer of hell on Christmas Day), but you can buy pretty much anything ready-to-go these days. Do things to make your life as easy as possible. Pre-order groceries and have them delivered; choose simple meals with a minimum of fuss/cooking; or even just have pre-made meals ready or do a pot-luck. And if any family members judge you? That’s their issue, not yours. Don’t buy into other people’s issues.
Family and the holidays
When it comes to spending time with family… Many of us find that we become very different versions of ourselves around our family, and we might even revert to the same roles and relationships that we’ve had since childhood – which could mean fighting with your siblings or feeling judged by your parents etc. And do you know what? You can choose whether or not to engage.
Only you can control what you do with other people’s words. If you choose to take negative stuff on board and get all hurt and defensive and upset, then that’s on you. The only choices you ever have in any situation are: accept it as it is; change the way you perceive it and react to it; or, remove yourself from the situation. Yelling and screaming won’t change things, crying won’t change things, getting upset won’t change things, hurling the mashed potatoes at your sister’s head won’t change things. All that you can control are your own thoughts, feelings and actions. For things to change, you must change.
I know, it’s easier said than done when grandma is sitting there reading your store-bought mashed potatoes to filth, or your drunk uncle is prying into your personal life, or your cousin is spouting off about their extreme political views, but ask yourself: does it really matter? Is it really worth getting into a state over it? And will it really matter in five year’s time? Because it doesn’t really matter, it’s not worth getting into a state over, and it won’t matter in five years. Other people’s opinions are just words, and you can choose to do what you want with them.
Grief and the holidays
What about grief? Grief is difficult enough at any time of year, but it especially seems to be heightened around big events like birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. If someone you love has passed or is no longer in your life – for example, due to a relationship breaking down – then you need to think about how to approach this time.
What can you do? Well, feelings can’t just be switched off, and it’s completely natural to expect that you’d be sad about missing loved ones, whether that be because they have passed or they are no longer in your life. Be gentle with yourself; allow yourself to feel your feelings; and do what feels right to you. If you want to celebrate, celebrate. If you want to take this year off, then take it off. If you want to do something different, do something different. You can always mix things up if it’s too painful to follow tradition, or you can start making new traditions (and celebrate the person, if you’re feeling up to it…).
If a friend or family member is grieving, let them know that you’re there for them and be prepared to give them space; it’s a really fine line between being supportive and being too supportive, and since everyone is different you will need to follow your instincts and feel your way through the situation, or just ask outright what you can do. Often, the most thoughtful gestures are the simple ones that takes a little pressure off – drop around a casserole (without making a big deal of it – remember, give them space), offer to pick up their groceries, invite them out for a coffee… Grief is a process, and this time of year can make it harder to deal with, so whether it’s you grieving or someone you know, the only way to get through it is to take it one day at a time.
Summary and three quick tips for getting through the holidays
In short… when we talk about ‘the holidays’ we should bear in mind that they are just a time of year that some cultures, including ours in the West, choose to celebrate. There are wonderful aspects – giving, joy, family – but there are negative aspects too – commercialism, heightened emotions, family… and all we can do is take it easy on ourselves.
There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ holiday, nor should there be – life is messy, and it doesn’t just take a day off so we can sit around a tree and talk about an obese individual who spends all night breaking into houses. Do as much or as little as your heart demands, and remember to give yourself the gift of kindness – which is worth more than any material item you could ever receive. As always… take things one day at a time – after all, the holidays only happen for a short period, so remember that you can get through it and you will get through it.
To summarise: The holidays can be a challenging time of year, but it’s also a great opportunity to connect with those you love and to reflect on the year that has been. Choose to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing, and know that it’s okay to do things your way if that’s what you want to do.
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for getting through the holidays:
- The holidays are sold to us as a time of joy, but for many of us they can be a nightmare – however, they don’t have to be.
- If you find the holidays stressful, know that you can choose to do as much or as little as you want, and it’s your right to choose.
- Don’t get in over your head with spending, and don’t get caught up in family drama – stay calm, and put your mental health first.
As always, let’s finish up by reflecting on a quote related to this week’s topic. This is a quote from the Dalai Lama; take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of getting through the holidays and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”Dalai Lama
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and article posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about improving your health and wellbeing, so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about reflection – since it’s nearly the end of the year and also the decade, and since I talk about the art of reflection at least 47 times every episode, I’m going to be talking about how you can take time to reflect on your journey over the past year (and the past decade) so you can identify the lessons it has to teach you as you move into a new year. I hope you’ll join me again for that episode which will be released on Monday 23 December, and which will be the final episode for 2019 (Let’s Talk About Mental Health will then return on Monday 6 January, 2020).
Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.